Director/Photography – Adam Low, Producer – Martin Rosenbaum. Production Company – National Theatre/Lone Star Productions.
Frankenstein: A Modern Myth is a documentary that is nominally about the myth of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. In truth, it would in any other circumstance be regarded as a short film that would have been included as a dvd extra. In this case, the film was made to accompany Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein (2011) at the National Theatre, which was broadcast to cinema screens internationally. Why the documentary is being screened as a separate film at the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival – when conspicuously the cinematic screening of the theatrical production itself is not – is a mystery. In actuality, Frankenstein: A Modern Myth was screened as an introductory piece before the stage production was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4.
Having an in-built resistance to watching 1) dvd extras served up as feature films (the piece is only 45 minutes long and the screening was accompanied by the more interesting, although entirely unrelated short documentary Salman Rushdie: Imagining India (2011) to pad out the running time) and 2) theatrically watching material that is readily available on tv screens, I sat down to watch Frankenstein: A Modern Myth. It was made by Adam Low, the director of a number of other biographical pieces on writers and artists for British television, including Alan Bennett and the Habit of Art (2010), which received some acclaimed festival play a couple of years ago.
As might be expected, what one ends up watching is largely a promotional piece for the stage play. We get interviews with Danny Boyle, stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as the play’s writer Nick Dear, who are generally insightful about the nature of the story and the production’s interpretation. There are clips from some of the Frankenstein movies – Universal’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein (1974) – but little is done to examine the Frankenstein cinematic legacy and there are no interviews with any of the previous Frankenstein filmmakers.
Outside of the stage play, most of the film is focused on Mary Shelley and the writing of the book. The Mary Shelley story is an interesting one, although is one that has been covered by other documentaries and books, and this particular version offers nothing new. At best, the documentary does a good job of illustrating the circumstances of Mary Shelley’s life – her background as the daughter of two 18th Century radical thinkers, the scandal that accompanied she and Percy Shelley when they joined Lord Byron in Switzerland, the Bohemian lifestyle they adopted while sequestered at the Villa Diodati where she conceived Frankenstein. (One of the documentaries unintentional amusements is that the historians seem undecided as to whether the Villa Diodati is pronounced as Die-oh-darty or Dee-oh-datty).
This part of the story is well brought to life but on the other hand is weakened by over-effusive hyperbole in the narration and description. The worst offender here is Philip Hoare who at one point conducts a laughably overwrought comparison that describes Mary Shelley’s life as formed out of a perfect storm of influences that led to her having no choice but to write Frankenstein. Philip Hoare represents academic over-analysis at its worst – at one point, he takes us on a visit to Percy Shelley’s tomb and seems to find visions of Christ and even eroticism in the marble statue erected over it.
This level of pretension is frequently matched by Adam Low’s over-bearing directorial effect. With lack of subjects from the era to interview, the film stretches itself around a very limited number of interviewees. The people selected include a couple of Mary Shelley experts but mostly are of slim to no connection to her or the Frankenstein legacy, including filmmaker John Waters (who has never made a Frankenstein film but is at least the film’s most convivial interviewee); Philip Hoare who has written books on Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and the Pet Shop Boys (although not Mary Shelley); and the warden of a penal facility and a rehabilitation psychologist.
Low also takes to illustrating the points with overly literal cuts away to footage – of the Rolling Stones after they are briefly compared to Lord Byron; The Sex Pistols and various punks when John Waters idly calls the Boris Karloff Frankenstein monster the first punk because of the bolts in its neck; and images of billowing nuclear reactors and the famous mouse with attached human ear to depict Frankenstein science.